Publisher - Rebellion
Published - Out Now
Price - £9.99 paperback/£4.99 kindle ebook
Anthology of stories exploring the secret history of the world’s most iconic monster. That the cruel ambitious monster of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel was once Vlad III Dracula, Voivode of Wallachia – The Impaler, to his enemies – is known. A warleader in a warlike time, brilliant, charismatic, pious, ferociously devoted to his country. But what came of him? What drove him to become a creature of darkness – an un-Dead – and what use did he make of this power, through the centuries before his downfall?
Decades after the monster’s death Jonathan and Mina Harker’s son Quincey pieces together the story, dusty old manuscripts, court reports from the Holy Roman Empire at its height, oral traditions among the Szygany Roma people who once served the monster.
I received a free advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
Dracula has cast a long caped shadow across horror across all mediums for well over a century now. He’s been updated, mocked and remade in many ways but this anthology looks to plug some gaps in to his earlier life. What exactly was the Count doing before he decided to take a slow boat to Whitby? In this excellent anthology five authors tell us a mix of tales that gives us both a larger narrative about where our favourite vampire came from but also shows some new and refreshingly modern aspects to Dracula that the reader will not expect.
The first tale “The Souls of Those Gone Astray From the Path” by Bogi Takacs gives us a strong new origin story. In a series of 15th century court reports we see the release of Vlad the Impaler from the imprisonment of King Matyas in Hungary. The King on the one hand is happy to now use Vlad to assist in an ongoing battle against the Turkish empire but at the same time has a much more personal interest in Vlad who appears to be changing in many ways after his time with the King. Although the infamy of Vlad the Impaler have been used in other stories to explain the Dracula legend Takacs gives us two new elements. Firstly, this is very much a tale of court politics rather than horror and the observations of the various key figures is done via a focus on the observations of those representing the Jewish population who are trying hard to cement their own place in Hungary. The reader must try and work out the various agendas being played and what is the endgame. Takacs also adds a new dimension is Vlad’s relationship with King Matyas and the abilities that vampirism bestow onto a user in terms of shape-shifting not just into animals but also gender and his relationship with Matyas in particular. I found this a fresh and innovative opening and the tale has repercussions that will be felt throughout the rest of the novel. Its also interesting to contrast the stories about vampires with the way Jews were demonised – there is almost a form of kinship in the way the two outsiders start to view each other.
Adrian Tchaikovsky in contrast moves the tale a hundred year on in “Noblesse Oblige” focusing more on the impact Dracula can have on others. In this case a line is drawn from Dracula to the infamous Hungarian noble Elizabeth Bathory who infamously of legend bathed in blood. In this tale a chance encounter with Dracula sets Elizabeth on a path to match and potentially fight the vampire on equal terms. Elizabeth is a focused aristocrat who puts family above all else apart from her growing obsession with age when she continually gets reminders that Dracula appears eternal. This for me is the most chilling tale in the novel as Elizabeth grows increasingly drawn to discovering the power of blood and experiments with local young women as to how best to obtain it. Knowing Bathory was a real human monster means as the reader sees her clinical detachment at the various torments she creates but notes in her diaries is where we are reminded that the biggest monsters in the world don’t all have pointed teeth. Even Dracula may draw the line at how far some will go to match his skills.
In a fine counterbalance to this Milena Benini in “A Stake Too Far” gives us a much warmer and lighter tale in 18th Century Austria. Although it could be read as a straightforward rale of vampire and witch hunters this is an interesting mix of comedy and drama. Dracula appears to have taken a well-deserved spa break but as we can expect he may have his own agenda. Add in a new servant; crooked priests trying to evict the local priest and a very green would be vampire hunter and birdwatchers it manages to avoid becoming pastiche by adding in a very different human side to Dracula who we will see had a very personal reason for his travels. It takes a very matter of fact approach with the world of the supernatural and is very likely to raise some smiles and unexpected moments of tragedy and loss.
The question as to why Dracula eventually thought London would make a good new home is answered in Emil Minchev’s “Children of the Night” told by Dracula himself. A chance encounter with a beautiful woman in the ice turns into an unexpected folk tale of love and horror. Minchev weaves Dracula with another infamous Eastern European creature of legend (which I won’t spoil) but in this we see Dracula’s sense of romance…safe to say it’s not going to be flowers and chocolates. In turns disturbing, enchanting and haunting. All done with a strong sense of folklore and this could easily be read as an ancient folktale too. Michev gives us a Dracula who is all strong emotions and even can give the reader a sense of pity for our lovelorn undead.
We then move into the aftermath of Dracula with Caren Gussuf Sumption’s “The Woman” this is the final story set after Dracula’s death focusing on the Szgany Romany clan that in Dracula swore eternal loyalty. It’s a clever story linking to a running theme throughout the other stories of Dracula’s life with others of his kind and at the same time the role of women. Three distinct generations recount how their family has served/fled the vampires and this tale starts to focus on the last of the generation who must decide if these legends are true and what must be done if it is. Sumption I thought created a bookend to Takacs’ tale exploring similar themes of gender identity as well as a using three forms of storytelling to weave a tale across centuries, am oral history, letters to a friend and finally a 21st century blogger. All of which (and the theme of letters and notes is throughout the novel) is a big nod to Stoker’s own style.
A good anthology should be able to surprise the reader around a central theme and with credit to David Thomas Moore’s editing we have five unique stories adding modern styles and themes to a legend many of us have thought we have seen everything done to date. It’s an extremely well-crafted anthology and Rebellion should be praised for how often they create anthologies that take familiar aspects of genre and give such refreshing spins sitting alongside recent successes with Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare. Well worth a read while wearing garlic and a religious emblem of your choice.